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With a fix for the ‘temporary profile’ bug still elusive, Win10 1903 and 1909 customers should check Pause Updates

By now you’ve probably heard about the disappearing-profile bug in this month’s Win10 1903 and 1909 cumulative update. The buggy patch went out on Tuesday, Feb. 11. Reports started rolling in shortly afterward about desktops that were wiped clean, wallpaper replaced, even files that disappeared. I wrote about it on Thursday morning:

Many people are in a tizzy — their desktop icons are gone, they can’t log onto their usual Admin account, and their files most definitely aren’t where they left them.

Since then we’ve seen many hundreds of complaints and dozens of articles about the mayhem. Ends up that the hapless victims had their Windows profiles swapped out, replaced by a temporary profile. The buggy patch moved their cheese and hid it where all but the most advanced Windows boffin would never find it.

Early on, Patch Lady Susan Bradley nailed the cause of the problem:

Loss of profile has historically been a race condition between the boot process and something holding files open. I personally have seen antivirus most often do this but it could be other things like antiransomware protection, group policy settings. Microsoft DOES test their patches, they really do. What they can’t do is test for the myriad of unknown ways that we set up our computers.

(Techy note: A race condition is a timing issue that arises when two or more independent programs stomp on each other. They’re very difficult to diagnose.)

Initial reports pointed the finger at a specific antivirus package as being the one that tangled with the KB 4532693 installer, but then we discovered that not all folks running that AV software were getting bit. Then we had a series of reports about local accounts (users who aren’t signed on with a Microsoft Account) getting the special treatment. Nope, that wasn’t the problem.

Microsoft hasn’t officially acknowledged the bug, as best as I can tell, aside from two posts on the Answers forum. On Feb. 12, Lawrence Abrams at BleepingComputer said that a Microsoft rep told him, “We are aware of the issue and are investigating the situation.” On Feb. 17, almost a week after the bug first appeared, Mayank Parmar at Windows Latest said:

In a conversation with Microsoft’s support team, multiple employees told us that Microsoft is aware of the issue and are actively investigating the situation. “Microsoft is aware of this known issue and our engineers are working diligently to find a solution for it,” a staff stated.

There have been multiple reports of users losing data because of the KB 4532693 patch. I haven’t seen that happen as yet, personally, so remain skeptical. Far more likely is that the data got stuffed into a .BAK or .000 or .003 folder inside the C:Users folder — the place Windows sticks profiles. If a Windows customer runs a Cleaner program while trying to fix the lost profile bug, the backup may well be gone.

Most distressing: Susan Bradley reports on a response to a Microsoft support case, in which a Microsoft technician specifically mentioned Windows Defender as a possible source of conflict:

I discussed the case with my tech lead and confirmed this to be a bug — 25270101 … find the Windows Defender Advanced Threat Protection and Microsoft Defender Antivirus services, right-click each of them, select Properties, and change Startup Type to Disabled, selecting OK after each change. Restart your device in normal mode and attempt to sign in with your original profile.

It isn’t at all clear if Defender might be part of the two-to-tango race condition. 

And, of course, neither the Knowledge Base article nor the official Windows Release Status page says a word. Nine days later and the buggy patch is still being shoveled out the Windows Automatic Update chute.

Not all is doom and gloom.

If you’re using Pause Updates in Win10 1903 or 1909 to block Microsoft’s patches, and your “Resume updates” date is far enough out — today or later — you didn’t get either this buggy patch or the monstrous KB 4524244 UEFI “patch,” which was pulled last week. But if you’re relying on Pause Updates, now would be a very good time to make sure it’s set out to the end of the month or later. Heaven only knows when (if!) Microsoft is going to re-release KB 4532693 and fix the disappearing profile problem.

For most of you, pausing updates until March 9 seems like a very good idea. (If you’re running SQL Server, though, you need to get the February patches installed. Sorry.)

To adjust your Pause Updates setting, first make sure you’re running either Win10 version 1903 or 1909 (type winver down in the Search box and press Enter). If you are, click Start > Settings > Update & Security. You should see something like the screenshot.

defer to 03 09 2020 Woody Leonhard/IDG

If your “Updates will resume on” date is before March 9, click the “Pause updates for 7 more days” link. (March 9 is a lucky number because the next Patch Tuesday is on March 10. Presumably Microsoft will fix this mess prior to that date. Presumably.)

In the past, I haven’t recommended that you extend the “Resume updates” date by pressing the “Pause updates for 7 more days” link because Microsoft has long warned that you can only extend updates after you’ve installed the currently available updates: 

After the pause limit is reached, you’ll need to install the latest updates before you can pause updates again.

I’m delighted — and surprised — to tell you that, at least in my tests, that limitation no longer applies. It appears to me as if you can go back in and pause updates for seven more days at a clip, even if you already have Pause updates set.

That’s remarkably good news.

Questions? Observations? Vituperations? We’re all ears on AskWoody.

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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Should you tell customers they’re talking to AI?

Pay attention to Amazon. The company has a proven track record of mainstreaming technologies.

Amazon single-handedly mainstreamed the smart speaker with its Echo appliance, first released in November 2014. Or consider their role in mainstreaming enterprise on-demand cloud services with Amazon Web Services (AWS). That’s why a new Amazon service for AWS should be taken very seriously.

Amazon last week introduced a new service for AWS customers called Brand Voice, which is a fully managed service within Amazon’s voice technology initiative, Polly. The text-to-speech service enables enterprise customers to work with Amazon engineers to create unique, AI-generated voices.

It’s easy to predict that Brand Voice leads to a kind of mainstreaming of voice as a form of “sonic branding” for companies, which interacts with customers on a massive scale. (“Sonic branding” has been used in jingles, sounds products make, and very short snippets of music or noise that reminds consumers and customers about brand. Examples include the startup sounds for popular versions of the Mac OS or Windows, or the “You’ve got mail!” statement from AOL back in the day.)

In the era of voice assistants, the sound of the voice itself is the new sonic branding. Brand Voice exists to enable AWS customers to craft a sonic brand through the creation of a custom simulated human voice, that will interact conversationally via customer-service interacts online or on the phone.

The created voice could be an actual person, a fictional person with specific voice qualities that convey the brand — or, as in the case of Amazon’s first example customer, somewhere in between. Amazon worked with KFC in Canada to build a voice for Colonel Sanders. The idea is that chicken enthusiasts can chit-chat with the Colonel via Alexa. Technologically, they could have simulated the voice of KFC founder Harland David Sanders. Instead, they opted for a more generic Southern-accented voice. This is what it sounds like.

Amazon’s voice generation process is revolutionary. It uses a generative neural network that converts individual sounds a person makes while speaking into a visual representation of those sounds. Then a voice synthesizer converts those visuals into an audio stream, which is the voice. The result of this training model is that a custom voice can be created in hours, rather than months or years. Once created, that custom voice can read text generated by the chatbot AI during a conversation.

Brand Voice enables Amazon to leap-frog over rivals Google and Microsoft, which each has created dozens of voices to choose from for cloud customers. The problem with Google’s and Microsoft’s offerings, however, is that they’re not custom or unique to each customer, and therefore are useless for sonic branding.

But they’ll come along. In fact, Google’s Duplex technology already sounds notoriously human. And Google’s Meena chatbot, which I told you about recently, will be able to engage in incredibly human-like conversations. When these are combined, with the added future benefit of custom voices as a service (CVaaS) for enterprises, they could leapfrog Amazon. And a huge number of startups and universities are also developing voice technologies that enable customized voices that sound totally human.

How will the world change when thousands of companies can quickly and easily create custom voices that sound like real people?

We’ll be hearing voices

The best way to predict the future is to follow multiple current trends, then speculate about what the world looks like if all those trends continue until that future at their current pace. (Don’t try this at home, folks. I’m a professional.)

Here’s what’s likely: AI-based voice interaction will replace almost everything.

  • Future AI versions of voice assistants like Alexa, Siri, Google Assistant and others will increasingly replace web search, and serve as intermediaries in our formerly written communications like chat and email.
  • Nearly all text-based chatbot scenarios — customer service, tech support and so — will be replaced by spoken-word interactions. The same backends that are servicing the chatbots will be given voice interfaces.
  • Most of our interaction with devices — phones, laptops, tablets, desktop PCs — will become voice interactions.
  • The smartphone will be largely supplanted by augmented reality glasses, which will be heavily biased toward voice interaction.
  • Even news will be decoupled from the news reader. News consumers will be able to choose any news source — audio, video and written — and also choose their favorite news “anchor.” For example, Michigan State University got a grant recently to further develop their conversational agent, called DeepTalk. The technology uses deep learning to enable a text-to-speech engine to mimic a specific person’s voice. The project is part of WKAR Public Media’s NextGen Media Innovation Lab, the College of Communication Arts and Sciences, the I-Probe Lab, and the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at MSU. Their goal is to enable news consumers to pick any actual newscaster, and have all their news read in that anchor’s voice and style of speaking.

In a nutshell, within five years we’ll all be talking to everything, all the time. And everything will be talking to us. AI-based voice interaction represents a massively impactful trend, both technologically and culturally.

The AI disclosure dilemma

As an influencer, builder, seller and buyer of enterprise technologies, you’re facing a future ethical dilemma within your organization that almost nobody is talking about. The dilemma: When chatbots that speak with customers reach the level of always passing the Turing Test, and can flawlessly pass for human with every interaction, do you disclose to users that it’s AI?

[ Related: Is AI judging your personality?

That sounds like an easy question: Of course, you do. But there are and will increasingly be strong incentives to keep that a secret — to fool customers into thinking they’re speaking to a human being. It turns out that AI voices and chatbots work best when the human on the other side of the conversation doesn’t know it’s AI.

A study published recently in Marketing Science called “The Impact of Artificial Intelligence Chatbot Disclosure on Customer Purchases: found that chatbots used by financial services companies were as good at sales as experienced sales people. But here’s the catch: When those same chatbots disclosed that they weren’t human, sales fell by nearly 80 percent.

It’s easy now to advocate for disclosure. But when none of your competitors are disclosing and you’re getting clobbered on sales, that’s going to be a tough argument to win.

Another related question is about the use of AI chatbots to impersonate celebrities and other specific people — or executives and employees. This is already happening on Instagram, where chatbots trained to imitate the writing style of certain celebrities will engage with fans. As I detailed in this space recently, it’s only a matter of time before this capability comes to everyone.

It gets more complicated. Between now and some far-off future when AI really can fully and autonomously pass as human, most such interactions will actually involve human help for the AI — help with the actual communication, help with the processing of requests and forensic help analyzing interactions to improve future results.

What is the ethical approach to disclosing human involvement? Again, the answer sounds easy: Always disclose. But most advanced voice-based AI have elected to either not disclose the fact that people are participating in the AI-based interactions, or they mostly bury the disclosure in the legal mumbo jumbo that nobody reads. Nondisclosure or weak disclosure is already the industry standard.

When I ask professionals and nonprofessionals alike, almost everybody likes the idea of disclosure. But I wonder whether this impulse is based on the novelty of convincing AI voices. As we get used to and even expect the voices we interact with to be machines, rather than hominids, will it seem redundant at some point?

Of course, future blanket laws requiring disclosure could render the ethical dilemma moot. The State of California passed last summer the Bolstering Online Transparency (BOT) act, lovingly referred to as the “Blade Runner” bill, which legally requires any bot-based communication that tries to sell something or influence an election to identify itself as non-human.

Other legislation is in the works at the national level that would require social networks to enforce bot disclosure requirements and would ban political groups or people from using AI to impersonate real people.

Laws requiring disclosure reminds me of the GDPR cookie code. Everybody likes the idea of privacy and disclosure. But the European legal requirement to notify every user on every website that there are cookies involved turns web browsing into a farce. Those pop-ups feel like annoying spam. Nobody reads them. It’s just constant harassment by the browser. After the 10,000th popup, your mind rebels: “I get it. Every website has cookies. Maybe I should immigrate to Canada to get away from these pop-ups.”

At some point in the future, natural-sounding AI voices will be so ubiquitous that everyone will assume it’s a robot voice, and in any event probably won’t even care whether the customer service rep is biological or digital.

That’s why I’m leery of laws that require disclosure. I much prefer self-policing on the disclosure of AI voices.

IBM published last month a policy paper on AI that advocates guidelines for ethical implementation. In the paper, they write: “Transparency breeds trust; and the best way to promote transparency is through disclosure, making the purpose of an AI system clear to consumers and businesses. No one should be tricked into interacting with AI.” That voluntary approach makes sense, because it will be easier to amend guidelines as culture changes than it will to amend laws.

It’s time for a new policy

AI-based voice technology is about to change our world. Our ability to tell the difference between a human and machine voice is about to end. The tech change is certain. The culture change is less certain.

For now, I recommend that we technology influencers, builders and buyers oppose legal requirements for the disclosure of AI. voice technology, but also advocate for, develop and adhere to voluntary guidelines. The IBM guidelines are solid, and worth being influenced by.

Oh, and get on that sonic branding. Your robot voices now represent your company’s brand.

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Opposition grows to Microsoft’s make-Chrome-use-Bing plan for Office 365 customers

Resistance has mounted over the last several days to Microsoft’s decision to change the default search engine of Google’s Chrome to Bing on personal computers running Office 365 ProPlus.

Microsoft quietly announced the move Jan. 21 on its Microsoft 365 Roadmap page, then on Jan. 22 published support documents with additional information and a blog post that stated the company’s rationale.

Commentary on Microsoft’s blog, the support document and elsewhere — including an Office 365 website dedicated to user requests — was almost universally negative.

“I can’t believe you think this is an acceptable business practice,” asserted Rickey Roach in a comment appended to the Office 365 team’s blog post.

“This is … overreach,” opined Tom Arbuthnot on that same blog. Arbuthnot was identified as an MVP, a Microsoft Most Valuable Professional. “Microsoft might be doing this because they think it will give the user a better experience, but doing it by default without even asking the user or the organization is too much. I’m pretty sure Google won’t be too pleased with this either.” (Arbuthnot expanded on his criticism on his personal blog.)

It’s all about Microsoft Search

Microsoft’s scheme to switch Chrome from its designated search choice to Bing was part of the firm’s Microsoft Search strategy.

“By making Bing the default search engine, users in your organization with Google Chrome will be able to take advantage of Microsoft Search, including being able to access relevant workplace information directly from the browser address bar,” Microsoft contended in a Jan. 23 support document.

Microsoft Search, which the company unveiled in May 2019, was designed to make search in the enterprise — in Microsoft-made and third-party applications — more productive. Rather than return just website links, Microsoft Search would find information from files and those applications’ content, bringing to the forefront not only matches and near matches but also what the algorithms believed the user really was after. In Edge, the service is dubbed “Microsoft Search in Bing.”

Microsoft Search is a key component of Microsoft 365, the über subscription that bundles Office 365, Windows 10 and management tools, and appears to be a major initiative. (One way to gauge the latter: the comprehensive Microsoft Search in Bing adoption kit, a cache of email, poster and evaluation templates companies can use to educate workers on the service and convince them to try it.)

Apparently, Microsoft was so set on spreading the new search service that it decided to force it on those enterprise users — the ones running Office 365, anyway — who have Chrome as their default browser. Microsoft made this decision even though it had to know that the plot would receive serious pushback and could easily guess the forms of that criticism.

Browser hijacking?

Not surprisingly, much of the blowback equated the unsolicited search change to the practices of malware makers and scammers.

“Force-changing the settings on a user for arbitrary reasons circles the drain of ‘unlawful,’ and is effectively browser hijacking,” said someone labeled only as camxct on GitHub, where comments attached to support documents appeared.

“Browser hijacking like in the 90s. Are you nuts?” asked kgbvax, perhaps not rhetorically.

The phrase “browser hijacking” — and others, including PUP, for “potentially unwanted program” — harked back years to a time when that practice was common. Malicious actors would infect a system with malware that changed a browser’s settings — typically its default search engine and/or home page — to drive traffic to specific sites where they could collect advertising revenue.

Google spent significant time and effort in blocking hijackers from taking over Chrome and in barring unofficial add-ons — those not hosted in the Chrome Web Store, more or less — from installing, all part of a years-long process to lock down the browser.

Now, Microsoft is attempting to do to Chrome just what Google has tried to stop.

“Chrome is not your browser, leave it alone!” said someone identified only as Andrew on the User Voice site Microsoft runs to solicit feedback and requests for Office. “This is adware at best! I am absolutely flabbergasted by this stunt!”

(As of 2 p.m. ET Jan. 28, that item on User Voice had been upvoted more than 900 times and had collected more than 180 comments.)

Others swore revenge. “This really makes me regret pushing Office 365 so hard where I work. You guys are putting egg on my face,” wrote Daniel Prince on the User Voice site. “I’m in charge of 90,000 Windows and Mac devices. Next week, we are blocking at the firewall level. Hope this little stunt you pulled was worth it.”

Software should obtain your consent, says Microsoft

Microsoft’s add-on has already appeared on Google’s Chrome Web Store, hinting that Google at least implicitly approved of the extension. Dubbed Microsoft Search in Bing quick access, it was updated as recently as today.

A pair of users objected to the extension in the Store, too. “Unwanted plugin, should not be allowed to install without consent,” argued Michael Studte. “Mess with Chrome Edge all you want, but don’t touch non-Microsoft browsers!”

The thing is, Microsoft’s own policies have — or still do; it’s unclear — forbid changing a browser’s default search engine without authorization.

“All extensions for Microsoft Edge must be deployed from the Microsoft Store,” stated the Microsoft browser extension policy for the old-school Edge. “The installation must be initiated and completed by the user, using only the user experience provided by Microsoft Edge and the Microsoft Store” (emphasis added).

Elsewhere, Microsoft’s own definition of unwanted software included phrasing that may match how it plans to distribute the Chrome extension. In the support document “How Microsoft identifies malware and potentially unwanted applications,” under “Unwanted software,” Microsoft said, “Software should obtain your consent before installing.” Microsoft has said nothing thus far about user consent when it rolls out the next update to Office 365 ProPlus.

Neither Google or Mozilla replied to requests for comment on Microsoft’s plan to issue add-ons for Chrome and Firefox in new installations of Office 365 ProPlus and the next update to ProPlus.

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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Microsoft prods customers with Windows 10 retirement dates

Microsoft is reminding customers that one version of Windows 10 received its final security update this week and that another will fall off the support list around this time next month.

The concluding update for Windows 10 Enterprise 1703 and Windows 10 Education 1703 was handed out Tuesday, John Wilcox, a Windows-as-a-Service (WaaS) evangelist, said in a post to a Microsoft blog. Windows 10 1703, which also carried the descriptive name of “Creator’s Update,” launched in April 2017.

The end-of-support date for Windows 10 Enterprise and Education 1703 was supposed to be Oct. 9, 2018, but in February of that year Microsoft extended the deadline – as well as those for several other feature upgrades – from 18 to 24 months. That pushed Enterprise and Education 1703’s retirement to April 2019.

The 24 months became 30 months in September 2018, when Microsoft again revised its support policies by announcing that Windows 10 Enterprise 1703 and Education 1703 would be supported until Oct. 8, 2019.

Next month, Microsoft will call it quits for Windows 10 Home 1803 and Windows 10 Pro 1803. Those consumer and small business editions, respectively, are to receive their final security updates on Nov. 12. Microsoft released 1803 on April 30, 2018.

(Although Home’s and Pro’s 18 months with 1803 will soon be up, Windows 10 Enterprise 1803 and Education 1803 will be supported until Nov. 10, 2020, or slightly more than 30 months from its introduction.)

Windows 10 Home 1803 and Pro 1803 have been in the spotlight of late – not for what the feature upgrade contains, but for the fact that it preceded 1809, Microsoft’s greatest Windows 10 stumble so far. When Windows 10 1809 was months late in launching, Microsoft solved the delay problem by largely skipping that version and instead upgraded users directly to its successor, Windows 10 1903; that version shipped in late May. Microsoft was able to do so because it freed users of Home and Pro to choose when to upgrade to the next version; since Windows 10’s mid-2015 debut, Microsoft had decided when each PC received and installed an upgrade.

But the company refused to surrender all decision making, fearful that customers would neglect to keep their devices up to date or refuse to upgrade because of the hassle. Microsoft did not want the unintended consequences of its freedom festival to be so many unpatched Windows devices that infections could threaten ecosystem catastrophe or worse, smear the operating system’s reputation.

So, Microsoft gave itself the right to forcibly upgrade PCs whose version of Windows 10 was about to expire. In this inaugural event, Microsoft began the compulsory upgrading in mid-July, four months before 1803’s retirement. Will it succeed? That’s unclear: One analytics vendor pegged 1803 as still powering 24% of all Windows 10 personal computers on Sept. 25, or seven weeks before the version’s support termination.

At 1803’s average decline over the four weeks before Sept. 25, the edition would remain on about 8% of all Windows 10 machines when Microsoft pulls the support plug. While 8% seems reasonable, it is actually twice and four times higher than the leftovers for the two preceding versions, 1709 and 1703, respectively, around the time when their support lapsed.

What is odd about Wilcox’s reminder of 1803’s impending end is that he didn’t mention, even in passing, the new servicing scheme, how it impacts Windows 10 Home 1803 and Pro 1803, or why 1803’s end of support is, in fact, different than previous upgrades. Instead, Wilcox described how Windows 10 differs from prior editions, a tale Microsoft has told so many times it has become rote.

The next Windows 10 expiration date will be April 14, 2020, when Windows 10 Enterprise 1709 and Education 1709 will have their support revoked.

Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

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MoviePass Shuts Down for All Customers

MoviePass is no more. The subscription-based movie ticketing service has collapsed, with no funding forthcoming, and parent company, Helios and Matheson, looking to sell the company’s assets. Still, MoviePass has at least changed things for the better.

A Brief History of MoviePass

MoviePass launched in 2011, offering cinemagoers the chance to watch a certain number of films per month for a set fee. Its popularity waxed and waned until 2017, when MoviePass started offering unlimited movies for just $10/month

MoviePass Now Offers Unlimited Movies for $10

MoviePass Now Offers Unlimited Movies for $10

MoviePass is now offering unlimited movies in theaters for just $9.95-per-month. Which is insane.
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. Which made headlines.

Seeing one or two movies a month covered the cost of the subscription. However, most users saw more than that, and with MoviePass covering the cost, the company burned through its seed money at a rate of knots. And now, the inevitable has happened.

MoviePass Has Run Out of Money

In a press release, MoviePass’ parent company, Helios and Matheson, announced that its board of directors has formed a strategic review committee to “identify, review and explore all strategic and financial alternatives” for MoviePass.

In the meantime, MoviePass has ceased to function. Or, as the press release puts it, it’s “interrupting the MoviePass service for all its subscribers effective September 14, 2019, because its efforts to recapitalize MoviePass have not been successful to date.

Helios and Matheson are saying it’s “unable to predict if or when the MoviePass service will continue” and that it’s “continuing its efforts to seek financing to fund its operations.” So while there’s a glimmer of hope this seems like the end of the road for MoviePass.

MoviePass Alternatives to Try Instead

MoviePass was never going to be sustainable in the longterm. Hell, it was bleeding money in the short-term, only propped up by venture capitalists who clearly enjoy frittering their money away on lost causes. However, it HAS forced theater chains to wake up.

Driven by the popularity of MoviePass, theater chains have launched their own MoviePass alternatives. So while MoviePass is no more, cinemagoers can now use AMC Stubs A-List, Regal Unlimited, or Cinemark Movie Club instead. All of which seem sustainable.

And a subscription to one of these should be on any list of gifts for movie lovers

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10 Great Gifts for Movie Lovers of All Ages

To help you decide what to buy the film fan in your life, we have put together a special guide to the best gift ideas for movie lovers this Christmas. Enjoy!
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